Detailed breakdown of Ultimate Fighter ratings shows disturbing trends

Getty Images - Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Brent Brookhouse of Bloody Elbow breaks down ratings for the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality show to show exactly why the numbers are so disturbing.

It has been bad news when it comes to ratings for The Ultimate Fighter for the two seasons the show has been on FX. While it should have been an accepted fact that a move to Friday meant that total viewership would decline, I don't think it was quite accepted that it would drop quite as heavily as it has.

One TV industry source told me Monday evening they'd expect a show to decline up to 15-20% in a move from Wednesday night to Friday night. The average rating for the last full season of TUF on FX (the "Live" season) is down roughly 33% from the prior season on Spike.

What may be more of an issue than the decline in total viewers in the Spike/FX/Wednesday/Friday change is the downward trending of the viewers per episode over the past two seasons. Here's the first of a number of charts:

Seasons_1_and_2_medium

The trend line is very clear, and would be even more pronounced without the somewhat artificial number from 2 weeks ago when the show broke a million viewers directly after a live FX show.

The somewhat overlooked thing is that the series was trending slightly downward over the last three seasons on Spike. While season 13 (Lesnar vs. Dos Santos) appears to have been an anomaly in terms of how badly the ratings did, the rebound up for the final Spike season (Bisping vs. Miller) did not bring the show back to the levels of prior seasons:

Seasons_12_through_14_medium

But the Spike efforts didn't suffer from the same issues as far as instability over the course of a single season.

Here's a small chart examining a few key elements. The average (mean) number of viewers per episode (knowing there would be some degree of decline on Friday), if the mean was higher than the debut number and if the final episode improved over the debut episode:

Season Number Mean Viewers/Episode Difference from debut to mean Debut vs. Last Episode
12 1,740,000 +140,000 +100,000 (+6%)
13 1,240,000 -260,000 -300,000 (-20%)
14 1,510,000 +10,000 +200,000 (+13%)
15 1,014,500 -285,500 -425,000 (-33%)
16 863,600 -83,400 -323,000 (-34%)

Now, it's important that we accept that we're only halfway through this season, so our sample size is much smaller. But we can see that over the last three seasons on Spike, two of those seasons actually had a mean number of viewers above the number of viewers that watched the debut. That would generally indicate some level of "buzz" or general interest that exceeded the initial episode "let's check this out."

Those same two seasons also had a regular season finale (that's the reality show portion, not the live fight card) that had a higher number of people watching than watched the first episode.

Season 13, the disaster that was the Brock Lesnar as coach experiment, saw major declines in both areas, but that low point (at that point anyway) for the series rebounded in season 14. Again, not to the levels of previous seasons, but significantly enough that it's worth noting.

Also, even the bad ratings for season 13 didn't suffer from the same level of swing that the two efforts on FX have seen. While the Lesnar season saw 20% less watch the finale than watched the debut, season 15 lost a third of its audience from debut to finale. And the current season is on pace to actually eclipse that.

Were it not for episode 4 and its inflation from the live show that preceded it, the current season would also have a mean that is significantly lower than the debut, again, suggesting that there is no hook and absolutely no buzz keeping audiences around and pulling in new viewers.

The reason these are major problems, no matter how many times people try to tout the "they're winning (insert demographic), and that's all that matters," is that selling ads isn't only based on winning a demo. If you're trying to sell ads to a company based on a show's reach, but the show is displaying instability to the point of losing more than a third of its viewers over a single season...let's just say that's a difficult task.

So right now, TUF is a show that is displaying downward trends in every way possible. And its sustained and provable that not only is viewership down because of Friday, but it's continually down over the course of seasons and displaying no ability to retain current viewers, let alone an ability to attract new viewers.

That was on prominent display when a season high number of people stuck around for episode 4 after the FX card, only to see roughly 43% of those people not come back for episode 5.

It's damn hard to expect your ad department to sell space for good value and to high-end desired clients with trends like these. And if a show's cost to revenue ratio is off, that's when you have to look at if it fits into your programming schedule looking forward.

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